Saint Peter in Chains
Visitors to Rome are often drawn to the Colosseum, a marvel of architecture from the first century A.D. For Christians today, those ruins also serve as a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by the early followers of Christ who were martyred in that amphitheater for their faith. That same message can be drawn from the nearby fifth century Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli – Saint Peter in Chains – where the chains believed to be those that bound the chief shepherd in prison in Jerusalem and Rome are displayed for veneration.
In the fall of 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI elevated me to the College of Cardinals, he also assigned me San Pietro in Vincoli as my titular church in Rome. It is one of only two churches in the Eternal City named for the first pope – the other being Saint Peter’s Basilica. In this way, as nominal pastor of this Roman church, I and this whole archdiocesan Church have the honor of a special bond with Saint Peter and also with his successors. Today, many centuries after Peter followed Jesus to the cross, the Successor of Peter remains the touchstone of our Catholic faith. Going now by the name of Francis, he links us to the first pope who witnessed Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – the Good News we continue to proclaim today.
As shown in the video above, at the end of the Mass where I took possession of this titular church, I knelt and prayed before the chains of Saint Peter displayed there. The story of the saint’s miraculous breaking free of those chains with the help of an angel is told in the Acts of the Apostles and depicted also in beautiful frescoes in the basilica.
Those chains offer an important lesson to today’s Christians: that discipleship is never easy, that witness to the faith can bear great consequences, but we need not fear. Sometimes we might be tempted to avoid those consequences, but Peter’s story shows us that we can break our own chains – chains of sin, doubt or fear – and obtain true freedom in Christ. With this realization, like Peter, we are prepared to give reasons for our hope and can boldly share the story of the risen Christ by our words and actions.
The basilica is home also to the famous statue of Moses by Michelangelo, which show him looking ahead with confidence, holding the tablet engraved with God’s commandments. It serves as a reminder that God’s word and laws are given to liberate us from our chains. Christ is the fulfillment of that law – a law written in our hearts – and he shows us, as he did for Peter, the way to freedom and everlasting life.